Surfing with a Life Jacket (Simple Guide)

Surfing and swimming go hand in hand. Some people may think you don’t need to know how to swim because the board floats. Wrong. You will constantly be falling off your board and need to regularly swim to it. Wearing a life jacket can help the scared beginner but is not very common.

Yes you can surf with a life jacket. Even for beginners it’s not highly recommended, but it still happens. In shallow small surf, a weak beginner could wear one for added confidence. Now on the other end of the spectrum is where the serious life vest action occurs. Big wave surfers wear inflatable life vests to bring them to the surface after long hold-downs.

So beginners and maybe more commonly toddlers wear life vests while surfing. As well as the beasts of the sea who tame and ride giants. So in actuality it really isn’t common place to wear a life vest while shredding. Very rare that anyone actually learns in one, and maybe even more rare to see someone out in the line up wearing one. That being said it is very common for elite big wave surfers to wear an inflatable vest. They just make up a very small part of the surfing world.

How to Surf with a Life Jacket

Really on the real, unless you’re a big wave surfer please don’t. If you’re not comfortable enough to swim without a life jacket, don’t surf. Don’t take a surfing lesson, take a swimming lesson. No reason to wear one unless, again, like I said you’re a big wave destroyer. If anything they’ll make surfing so much harder and in some cases can cause more harm than good.

But if you insist this is what you should do:

  1. Follow the instructions provided with the life vest and put it on. Make sure the vest is tight and snug like a warm hug around your chest.
  2. Begin to paddle out through the waves laying as flat as you can on your board. Try your best to time your paddle out in between sets avoiding the need to duckdive.
  3. You can push your board under the crests of waves before they break. This will allow you to hopefully snake under the waves before they break. The name of the game here is getting out through the surf. The buoyancy of the vest won’t allow you to dive under waves easily and they will want to pick you up and push you back.
  4. Turn around and face the beach and wait for a nice juicy set wave to arrive. When you feel the wave approaching paddle hard and prepare to pop up. Make sure your arms are a little wider than usual when popping up to avoid hitting your vest.
  5. Explode off your board pushing up with your arms and ending on your feet.  Stay low and centered on until you are balanced, then stand up. Let out hoot and holler, then quickly repress it realizing you don’t want to draw attention to yourself and risk being seen surfing in a life jacket.
  6. Begin to shred the wave using your back leg to drive and pump generating speed down line. Keep your eyes focused on where you want to go and the maneuvers you want do. An have fun!

Fitting: Pick a life vest that fits you snugly. It is better for the vest to be too tight rather than too loose. A vest that is too loose will rise up in the water while you sink down. The vest will bob around your head blocking your vision and allowing water in your mouth.

Best Life Jacket for Surfing

For whatever reason, you’ve got your heart set on surfing with a life jacket; below I’ve outlined some of the best possible options for different scenarios. Disclaimer: If your not a strong swimmer, again I repeat, get yourself some swimming lessons, and never go surfing alone if you need a life jacket in order to surf.


A good life jacket for an adult to surf in will fit snugly with enough buoyancy to keep you afloat but not so large and awkward that it hinders your movements while surfing. The best life jacket on the market for surfing is the O’neill Mens Slasher Comp Vest..

It has good buoyancy to keep you afloat while being tight fitting and compact so as not to restrict movement. The vest won’t interfere much with your paddling and pop up but will help you return to the surface faster after falls.

A close second and not bad alternative at all would be the Sportsstuff stars and stripes life jacket. This is a more traditional life jacket with added stripes and stars for speed and visibility.  It has more buoyancy than the O’Neill life jacket but much less flexibility and movement. But for a 3rd of the price, you’ll get the security of being able to float and still have enough range of motion to surf.


Another disclaimer. Please if your child is not a confident swimmer and you want to take them surfing use extreme caution! Even with a life jacket.

The best life jacket for a child to surf in is probably the Speedo Unisex-Child Swim Flotation Classic Life Vest Begin to Swim UPF. It is blue and orange so it looks sweet on even the strangest of looking children. It’s extra buoyant and has an under crotch harness so if things do go belly up… well, the child will quite literally stay bell up.

The crotch harness is adjustable and can fit most tiny humans. The zipper makes getting your child in and out a breeze. And the soft material is soft for your little angels skin.

Number two on the children’s life jacket list is the Kent Commercial Type I Collar Style Life Jacket.  This is a tried and true classic. A life jacket’s life jacket. Your grandpa’s blue-collar, or should I say orange collar, workhorse out on the dingy. Tested through time to keep the water incompetent afloat, this vest will do the same for your hydrophobic little munchkin. They’ll be able to surf and float and have a jolly good time all within the safe buoyant orange walls of this time tested classic.

Big wave surfers

Now onto big wave surfers, and the best of the best for big waves is the Highline Airlift One by Quicksilver. It has four holsters to hold four Co2 canisters. It’s buoyant enough to bring you to the surface after a long hold down. This is what Quicksilver has to say about their vest:

“The Highline Pro Airlift is a neoprene safety vest that utilizes carbon-dioxide cartridges to help bring the wearer to the surface in big wave hold-down situations. Since its release in 2017, it has become a staple at the world’s heaviest waves. Every swell. Every session. The Airlift is there, adding an extra element of safety and pushing the level of performance in surfing’s most volatile environments.”

Big Wave Surfing Inflatable Vests

Surfing with an inflatable big wave surfing vest is a little different. The inflatable vests that big wave surfers use are made of neoprene and contain a heat-sealed urethane bladder inside.

Four canisters of co2 are connected to the bladder and stored in pouches on the back of the vest.

Each of the four co2 canisters is connected to separate pull tabs on the front of the vest. Pulling on a tab opens one of the four co2 canisters allowing the compressed co2 to inflate the bladder.

The bladder full of co2 causes buoyancy bringing the surfer to the surface after a wipeout. The vest also has a deflate on the back of the vest to release the co2 once the surfer is brought to safety.

Each co2 canister can hold between 25 and 38 grams of compressed co2 and can be found at marine stores and specialty surf shops.

Remember, these types of vests are safety tools, not performance enhancers. They are designed for experienced adult surfers with a wealth of ocean knowledge and excellent swimming skills. Do not take greater risks’ just because you are wearing one.

  1. Inspect each canister before installing in your vest look for damage, especially to the lid.
  2. Check the actuators making sure all the trigger arms are down. If they are up it won’t be possible to activate the co2.
  3. Inspect the pull tabs and make sure none of the cords are tangled. Tangles cords are a simple preventable problem that can stop you from deploying your vest when you need it most.
  4. To install the canisters you will have to twist them up into the actuators then slide them into their respective holsters. Put the vest on and make sure it is tightly secured to your chest by tightening the torso straps. 

A tight yet comfortable fit will help the vest not come out of place while you’re surfing, or during a long hold down after a wipeout. An oral inflation tube is included with some models.

You can use the oral inflation tube to inflate the bladder before each use ensuring it’s in the proper position. The goal of a good inflation vest is to create buoyancy while not affecting your maneuverability whilst paddling.